Design in Detail: An Essay on Making

KPF’s practice is rooted in the conviction that an ambitious design concept is most successful when its underlying intentions are thoughtfully and rigorously developed through all stages of a project, its original thesis embodied in its materials, details, up to its overall gesture.


This essay has been adapted from a lecture delivered by James von Klemperer, KPF President and Design Principal, at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The event, occurring in May 2018, accompanied the very first iteration of the firm’s traveling exhibit, hosted within the university’s architecture school.

Too often, the execution of contemporary, large-scale architecture suffers from a widening gap between theoretical intention and physical realization. The formidable rigors of managing schedules, budgets, and logistics often results in a division of labor between design and construction, eliminating the traditional, broader role of the architect as “master of all trades.”

Maker-space in KPF’s New York office.

At KPF, we endeavor to create more integrated, holistic architecture by prioritizing continuity between conception and completion. The patterns of traditional bricklaying, the logic of wood joinery, and the modern technologies of newly invented materials all inform our building concepts.

Without delving into an exhaustive survey of architectural history, this essay considers a few significant moments and figures in the Western sphere and canon that have irrevocably shaped contemporary practice.

To better understand the relationship between idea and execution, it helps to ask how the role of the architect — as designer, maker, and builder — has evolved over time.

Beginning in fifteenth century Italy, perspective drawing gave architects new tools with which to conceive of space, with Fillippo Brunelleschi representing a certain ideal of the “total architect.” Although he is most famous for designing the Duomo in Florence, he started his life as a craftsman. His technical talents as a metalsmith informed his work at the architectural scale. He designed not only the Duomo’s structure of compressive parabolas and chain tension rings, but also its scaffolding and a new system for hoisting masonry up the structure. Based on his understanding of productivity, he even prescribed what and when the workers should eat and drink.

Florence Cathedral with its famed dome, or ‘duomo’ in Italian.

Later periods experienced a continuous series of pendulum swings between “integrated” and “separated” practice. Notably, the increased mechanization that accompanied multiple industrial revolutions posed challenges to the tenets of a humanist approach. From the early nineteenth century onwards, European factories established new standards of production efficiency. The inherent conflicts between craft and the growing industrial machine raised fundamental questions for both theorists and practitioners of architecture.

Theorists such as John Ruskin, A.W.N. Pugin, and William Morris championed the English Arts & Crafts movement and critiqued the industrial age for its detachment from traditional craftsmanship. They praised vernacular, material culture, made possible by the architect engaging in design to its fullest extent. The ideal “craftsman-designer” would link the design of fabric, furniture, and lighting with the process of fabrication in order to create a more meaningful living environment.

Lasting effects of the Industrial Revolution.
L: The Red House, designed by William Morris.R: Textile pattern inspired by the English Arts & Crafts movement.

In the early twentieth century, several German philosophers, and the members of the Deutscher Werkbund, proposed that design embrace its role in the industrial process. The AEG Turbine Factory (1909) is a prime historical example, demonstrating that industry could be at once interesting and beautiful. The AEG lightbulb is one example that illustrates this industrial design movement.

Later, the Bauhaus epitomized some of the greatest outcomes of this marriage between art and industry. Walter Gropius, the school’s founder and historical figurehead, praised the total work of art — or “Gesamtkunstwerk”— for including architecture as a master discipline. The Bauhaus curriculum and coursework, depicted as a wheel-like diagram, incorporates formal studies, such as painting, while also exploring materials and building science. This approach to industrial craft influenced notable buildings of the day, reinforcing a modern notion of the architectural profession.

The AEG Turbine Factory in Berlin, designed by Peter Behrens.
L: Industrial three-phase box with AEG Turbine Factory branding.R: Stairwell at The Bauhaus School in Germany.

The legacy of the architectural profession continues to influence KPF’s present work and future efforts, bringing the issue of process front and center with every project, no matter the scale. Our architects challenge each other to be ambitious in their “big ideas” while still considerate of every material decision, even when technologies introduce new schisms and widen existing ones. These tensions inspire an architectural practice that balances design and making, with craft at the fulcrum.

One Vanderbilt team at stone quarry for material selection.

This completed project in Hong Kong exemplifies the balance of craft and nature in one of the world’s most active cities. The project includes luxury townhouses perched between a dense, urban context and articulate landscaping, inspired by icons of Chinese culture and history such as the Great Wall, the folding screen, and the dragon dance.

The distinctive street wall includes handcrafted, cast bronze privacy screens and door details for each unit.

Residence entrances at 23-39 Blue Pool Road.

KPF commissioned a local artist to design these screens, selecting bronze for its richness and warmth, and testing more than 20 alloy mixtures to produce the desired color effect: a balance between dark brown and gold, pale and overly saturated. This practice also required anticipating the material’s patina and its inevitable oxidation.

Technical drawing of bronze screen articulation.

With a shared goal for the bronze to age beautifully, the team chose to forego any application of polymer that would fossilize the metal, meaning that the bronze would lack visible luster but remain stabilized. Acknowledging the reality of maintenance for this level of detail, the client committed to applying beeswax regularly, which seals the bronze from any contact with oxygen.

Detail of an individual bronze screen with naturally weathered disposition.

Born from the idiosyncrasies of the surrounding Greenwich Village neighborhood, One Jackson Square celebrates its urban locale with its fluidity of form and materiality.

Rippling bands of glass mediate the varied scales and formal language of New York, creating a sense of movement along the street wall and reflecting the buildings and activity of the Village back to its surroundings. KPF replicated this effect within the residential building’s dramatic entrance through the innovative use of bamboo paneling.The expansive lobby suggests a block of wood, worn over time by the ebb and flow of residents, much like a river erodes its banks.

Floor plan of One Jackson Square’s undulating lobby.

Initially considering limestone, the design team instead gravitated toward bamboo for its luxurious yet organic qualities. Working closely with SITU studio, KPF determined how strips of CNC-milled bamboo would stack to extend height of the 18-foot lobby.

The first layout produced a dizzying, psychedelic effect, while the final design solution prioritized consistency in the wood grain with thin, horizontal lines that stretch the width of every piece. Slender, stainless steel verticals connect each panel, accenting the slight sheen of the bamboo.

Positioned on Shanghai’s busiest shopping district, this bespoke façade expresses sophistication and extravagance with a dynamic interplay of metal shingles and light, marking a standout location for the renowned fashion brand. Its aesthetic presence serves as a beacon marking the entry to the larger Jing An complex.

The KPF team designed a pattern of backlit, metal shingles that maximize reflectivity, employing a workflow that balanced physical and digital fabrication processes.

Technical drawing used to determine facade strip patterns and angles.

Coding a model in Grasshopper, they manipulated the façade’s interaction with light through metal texture and orientation. This inventive system stitched short and long units into vertical compositions and then aggregated them into seemingly random patterns.

These case studies embody KPF’s dedication to material and digital craft, demonstrating the symbiotic relationship between creation and production, iteration and finalization. They also illustrate the continuously evolving role of the architect, both across contemporary projects and throughout time.

Material sample and model in service of the design of CTF Finance Centre in Guangzhou, China.

Since 2018, these case studies and their interconnected themes have crowned a traveling exhibit concerning KPF’s achievement in craft., titled KPF Making. Finding its start in China, each iteration of the show has featured primary and secondary projects that represent diverse typologies, coupled with models, mockups, and video that expand the material story of each building. With a recent stop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and an upcoming one in London, United Kingdom, the show’s curation will also continue to champion KPF’s integration of local cultures and landscapes with each and every design.

Introduction wall at KPF Making in Beijing.

KPF Making celebrates the individual designer as collaborator, investigator, problem-solver, and maker.

L: KPF Making layout at Tsinghua University in Beijing. R: Postage stamp portrait of Liang Sicheng, a Chinese architect and historian who founded the Architecture School at Tsinghua University in 1946.

A tenet of KPF’s early practice was that large buildings can express the intricacies often reserved for smaller structures, and diligent attention to this idea pervades our ethos today. Many of the firm’s most beloved projects employ a single detail reiterated by its overall gesture. This pledge persists and ensures that ongoing work achieves physical longevity and contributes to the overall built environment.

The exhibit was hosted in Shenzhen, China, within the magnificent lobby of a KPF-designed supertall: China Resources Tower.

As these identities mingle and mature, designers strive to apply innovative new technologies at varied scales in the design, detailing, and fabrication of architecture. From 3D printing to urban data analysis, our designers remain excited by the capacity of technology to further its pursuit of architecture with craft.